Feeding the Fishes

Posted on December 8, 2009

After the daily chaos that was Phnom Penh, Cher and I have fallen into a comfortable routine.  First up is breakfast and coffee/tea.  “A caffeinated Cher is a happy Cher” my sister informs me.  She has taken to ordering a Coke Light with breakfast as well after telling me one sleepy afternoon that her caffeine has no tea in it.  The waiters at Shinta Mani hotel, where we are staying, are all graduates of the hotel’s hospitality school.  The hotel runs a bakery and restaurant training program for older street kids and then provides job placement for them when they graduate.  Many wind up working for the hotel and are all overly eager each day to show off their skills, including their English.  You have to be carefully not to glance in their direction while eating – otherwise, they materialize next to you eager to offer more water or simply chat your ear off.  Something we found out during our first meal with an overly friend young man named Lyda, apparently named by the Khmer Johnny Cash, perched himself at the edge of our table and didn’t leave the entire time we were eating.

After breakfast we are off to the orphanage via the Khmer Market.  The orphanage is woefully lacking not only in proper things for little Sum Nang, but for all the children.  Cher and I have become fixtures at the market, buying up powdered milk, baby items, diapers, formula supplements and other necessities.  I suspect there is another reason Cher loves the market.  On our first visit, she spied Mountain Dew in a cooler and nearly mowed me down in an effort to get to it.  I suspect an addiction….

Sum Nang is happily sitting up in his wheelchair when we arrive, ready to begin his morning exercises.  He is too cute for words are we go through with the Sisters and an amazing volunteer from Australia named Virgina his new daily regiment.  Virgina has agreed to stay in Siem Reap for the next six months to make sure that the new therapy and nutrition schedule that Cher has set up is actually followed through.  Though the nuns have good intentions, they also have 21 children and little help.  Spending so much time working with one child is really next to impossible for them.  I’m also grateful that my friends, Dr. Etolie Leblanc and Dr. Karen Froud from Columbia University, have agreed to provide additional assistance.  This morning, Etolie brought a swallow specialist to examine Sum Nang.  While he is being examined, I introduce Etolie to Baby Sum Nang – a 10 month old with a large growth between his eyes.  We’ve learned that the name Sum Nang means lucky – ironic since both of the boys named Sum Nang at the orphanage suffer from medical difficulties.  It turns out there is a small hole in his skull and fluid from his brain is leaking through to cause the growth.  It will need to be corrected surgically and Etoile and I discuss options that may be possible through Operation Smile.

Big Sum Nang’s examination takes him well into naptime, so we take off to give him a chance to get a good rest after his busy morning.  Cher and I have pretty much been working since we arrived in Siem Reap and haven’t ventured out at all.  With a few hours to spare, we hop a Tuk Tuk and head into Old Market.  Being the seasoned Cambodian traveler that I am, I have a destination in mind.  I quickly direct my sister through the streets and approach a particular building at a fast clip, trying my best not to drool in anticipation.  In no time at all, I am encased on a bar stool with a drink in hand.  My sister eyeballs me with a raised brow as Celtic dance music blares from the speakers.

“An Irish Pub???  Really???” she asks incredulously as I caress and whisper sweet nothings at my pint of Guinness.

After our little tour of the UK, we are back to the orphanage for Sum Nang’s vocal exercises and some food experimentation.  He is grossly underweight and needs to put on some fat and muscle.  His diet up until now has been mostly rice and carrots in a blender.  Like all the children there, he also doesn’t get enough water and none of them drink milk on a regular basis.  Dehydration is simply par for the course.  Introducing him to new taste and textures has been met with success and very specific failures.  We already know he doesn’t like orange juice and he makes his feelings on mangos known by spitting them out and then throwing up for good measure.  We bought a variety of powdered milk and powdered weight booster formulas and I’m rather like a crazy alchemist in the corner, madly mixing together different things for him to try and spit out at us.  We are working on putting together a menu for him that includes water with each meal and after exercising.  His water and other liquids must be thickened in order for him to swallow them, so food preparation and actually feeding requires time and patience.  More than ever, we are grateful that Virgina has decided to stay.  Since she is a volunteer and not a nun, she is not bound by the vow of poverty and thus can communicate with us regularly via email and phone with updates on our little guy.

In the evening, we head back into Old Market to go to another of my favorite Siem Reap restaurants called The Red Piano.  Though the food is excellent, that is not what draws me to this Market hot spot.  It is the inexplicable presence of the two old guys from the Muppet Show at the top of each menu page extolling the Quality, Comfort and Hygiene of the restaurant.  Speaking of Hygiene, if your feet are sporting too much bacteria – right down the street from The Red Piano is Dr. Fish Massage.  Cher and I amble up to the sign in front with its inviting photos of little barracuda swarming all over some white guys feet.  With spelling in place, I give you the sign:

“You are ever seen and need to massage by man.  Now we have a surprised fish is able to massage really exciting and better than man called Garra Rufa Dr. Fish! Dr. Fish could clean the old cells to lot the new ones grow quikly. Also know the therapy and release your exhaustion immediately, as well as fun with a superb experience.  After massage, you will get smooth skin without Bacteria.  Let is FUN & Experenced Together!”

When in Rome…. For three dollars, generously provided by my little sister, I found myself willingly sticking my bare feet in an uncertain looking fish tank with a random floating lotus flower and about a thousand little eating machines.  I don’t if the fish were surprised, as the sign claims, but I sure was and let up a yelp when they started munching away.  Cher stood by with dire predictions of disease and fish foot infestation, which didn’t really lend to my “superb experience”.  However, I must confess as I sit here writing this blog, my feet are damn smooth…